But it takes unbridled courage to admit that your whole life has careened off the tracks and then not only realize a total change has to be made but to successfully carry it out. That’s the bleak point where Alberta thoroughbred trainer Tim Rycroft, Northlands second-leading trainer, was at almost 20 years ago.
“I was a terrible alcoholic,” said Rycroft, now one of Alberta’s top trainers. “Fighting. Being drunk and rowdy. You name it. That was me. I was in trouble all of the time. I had seven jobs as the head outrider - including Northlands and Calgary’s Stampede Park - but I lost six of them because of my drinking. I just kept shooting myself in the foot. If I hadn’t quit drinking I wouldn’t be here; I’d be dead.”
One night Rycroft ended up in jail for fighting and impaired driving. “Booze is horrible stuff. I couldn’t handle it and I guess I never figured out that no matter how drunk I got I still had to face the next day. I would get so drunk I didn’t know who I was. I’d get sick to the point where I was having alcoholic seizures. I didn’t like who I was. I didn’t like myself. And I could certainly see why nobody else wanted to be around me.”
But that abruptly changed nearly two decades ago when he met Lori Going, who trained horses herself and who is the mother of their daughter, Quinn, 13. “Lori told me I could leave with the two garbage bags full of clothes that I brought to the table anytime I wanted if I didn’t stop drinking. That was 19 years ago. I haven’t had anything to drink since,” said Rycroft, who has 18 wins, 11 seconds and 14 thirds from 61 starts for a top three log of 70 per cent during the current Northlands meeting. “I quit cold turkey."
“The first few months were tough,” he said of trying to remain sober in a sport where wins are often celebrated with alcohol and losses trying to be erased the same way. But I got through it and I know I’ll never have another drink the rest of my life. I have too much to lose.”
With Rycroft’s dad, Tom, a longtime trainer, who he calls one of his best friends, it would have been natural for Tim to follow those footsteps from the outset. Instead, Tim chose to be an outrider - a job where he was responsible for opening and closing the track each day, quickly collecting any loose horses, leading the post parade and escorting the winning horse and jockey to the winner’s circle.
“I was only 15 when I got my first job as an outrider in Regina. My dad had to sign a waiver because I was too young. I learned from one of the best outriders there ever was, a guy named Wayne Johnson, who was from Washington. He was a gruff, tough bugger; he made me pay attention.”
Over the next 20 years, outriding would take him from Regina to Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Fort Erie and then Woodbine. It was only 13 years ago that Rycroft, 54, decided to try his hand at training. “We were in Ontario where I was the head outrider at Woodbine and Lori got pregnant with Quinn. Lori wanted to come back to Alberta to have Quinn so we moved to Edmonton and I started up a small stable.
“I’ve always done OK but when I started out I didn’t have much horse power - seven or eight cheap horses. At first it was a lot of fun winning races with those kind of horses. All the horses I trained were winning races but it started to wear thin on me.” Rycroft’s stable gradually increased. And so did his wins. So he kept going doing what he loves best.
But four years ago, once again with a barn with mostly cheap horses, he was ready to pack it in. “I was ready to shut her down,” said Rycroft. “I was just about ready to quit training and do something else. I was at the point where if something didn’t happen big I didn’t want to do it anymore. I don’t just want to be there just to be there. I like to win and I like good horses.”
Then, in a heart beat, it all changed when something really big really happened. Four years ago, when Norm Castiglione and Robert Vargo parted ways with Greg Tracy, the Riversedge duo who own some 65 horses interviewed Rycroft, liked what they heard and saw and hired him almost on the spot. “Tim is a steady guy. A real solid guy; a real family guy,” said Castiglione.
“He’s given Tracy a real good run for trainer of the year. He’s looked after us as well as anyone can look after you here in Alberta. He really cares about his horses and their well being. He sent in his resume, we met with him and we hired him,” continued Castiglione. “We were looking for somebody who had the capacity to take as many horses as we had and he fit the bill.”
Success was immediate. In 2015 - his first year with Riversedge - Rycroft had the best year of his career when he won 59 races from 307 starters for earnings of $991,863. Led by Awesome Slate, Rycroft’s barn won most of the two-year-old stakes races, won the Sun Sprint with Clear The Runway, sent out Heros Amor to champion three-year-old filly status and Victory Day and Bootlegger’s Wife to several stakes wins each and then capped everything off with Academic’s win in the Canadian and B.C. Derbies.
Last year, Rycroft won 52 races from 207 starters. This year - in his fourth season with Riversedge, he is rolling again. Rycroft may have been a bad drunk but he’s an excellent trainer.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Rycroft, who calls Winfield - some 70 kilometres west of Wetaskiwin - home but who currently rents a basement suite close to the track in Edmonton. “I think this racing business in Alberta is going to be just fine. We’re going to get a new track by the Edmonton airport and the casino they are building with it seems well positioned. I really believe we will turn the corner and get back to where we used to be. It’s onward and upwards and I’ll do everything I can do to get the sport vibrant again.”
Rycroft is also optimistic about his barn this year. “We’ve got some pretty nice shooters,” he said of a stable led by Trooper John, winner of the recent Ky Alta and the current early favourite for next month’s Canadian Derby - a role Norm’s Big Bucks was supposed to own. Unfortunately, last year’s juvenile champion, Norm’s Big Bucks - a horse that could have been something really special - broke down in last October’s Canadian Juvenile - a race Trooper John would win by eight and a half lengths.
“Trooper John is getting bigger and stronger and more confident all the time,” said Rycroft. “He’s eating the bottom out of the feed tub and he’s having fun. I had Keishan Balgobin work him five furlongs the other day. I told Keishan that a work in 1:01 would be just fine. But when I clicked my watch he had gone in :59 4/5. Keishan said he didn’t realize he was going that fast. But that’s the way good horses are. They go fast even when they don’t look like they’re going fast.”
Humble and reticent, Rycroft, who never puts the limelight on himself, credits his crew and his owners for his success. “My philosophy about training horses is if you treat them good, they’ll treat you good. If you give them an opportunity to be the athletes they are, it often works out. It’s not rocket science. Occasionally you look like a genius when things fall into place. But mostly it’s just a lot of hard work. If you don’t have owners like Riversedge you’re a nobody. If I didn’t have them I wouldn’t be where I am now."
“It’s the same with my staff. I’ve got an excellent crew. Any credit that comes my way belongs to them,” said Rycroft, who enters his horses where they belong instead of just entering to be in a race. But it is Lori, who he met in Alberta when he was between jobs as an outrider, that gets the most credit. “She looks after the farm in Winfield, takes cares of the business away from the track, handles the payroll and pays all the bills and she and Quinn are both heavily involved in barrel racing. She’s the one who keeps things organized."
“This business has a lot of ups and downs and I wear both of them on my sleeve. I go home pretty dejected some days. So it’s always special to come home and have Lori and Quinn to talk to. “My family is everything.”
On Saturday Northlands will host two $50,000 stakes: the Shirley Vargo Memorial in honour of Robert’s late wife who passed away a year ago and the Fred Jones for older horses. For the Shirley Vargo, Riversedge are sending up Churlish Curlish, a Curlin mare, from their Ocala, Florida farm and who has been doing her running south of the border.
“I like her; she looks real good,” said Rycroft. “Rico (Walcott) worked her the other day and he was very happy with her.” Rycroft also likes the way some of his two-year-olds are going including Victory Knight, a half brother to Victory Day who broke his maiden by eight and a half lengths. “He looked really professional doing it,” said Rycroft.
Then there’s a full sister to Norm’s Big Bucks who is training forwardly and a couple of two-year-olds owned by Peaceful Valley stables that he’s also high on. “Knock on wood, things are going good. But you have to stay on top of it. I’m the type of guy who hates to pat himself on the back. When you do something for a long time, you hope you’re eventually good at it. At the end of the day it’s always nice to have a few accolades. To have someone say ‘Good job’ means as much to me as money.”
A hard worker, Rycroft’s success as a trainer is easy to appreciate. But it is his 19 years of sobriety that really needs to be applauded.
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock